Neanderthal Culture

We like to think that culture separates humans from animals, but what is the sign of culture? The reason this is of interest is that recently cave art has been discovered in some Spanish caves that is at least 60,000 years old, which means that it was drawn by Neanderthals as Homo sapiens did not arrive in Europe for another 20,000 years. It is not as distinctive as some of the cave art found in French caves, but that may not be surprising, since it has had to last an additional 30,000 years or so, and some has been dated to over 100,000 years.

Neanderthals are often considered as unsophisticated brutes, incapable of art, and far less technically capable than us. That has often been argued because Homo sapiens made quite sharp arrowheads and Neanderthals did not. It is true that Homo sapiens also made sharper spear tips, but this may be because the two races/species hunted differently. The Neanderthals were ambush hunters in the ice age forests whereas Homo sapiens arrived as grass-lands were appearing, and had to hunt in the open. This may be why the Neanderthals gave way: they simply could not get enough food. That we shall never know. There is also an argument that we have a few per cent of Neanderthal genes, which means the two interbred, which to me suggests they were simply different races and not different species.

As for being clumsy brutes, I saw in a museum near the palace at Versailles some artifacts, and yes, by and large the weapons used by the Neanderthals for hunting were far more clumsy looking, and would need a lot more power to use. But they were far more powerful. They had strength, but not stamina. They had not mastered flint knapping, and I am not sure whether they even knew about flint. We have to be careful in making such statements because although we have a number of artefacts, they tend to have been collected from a few very selected places, and during an ice age, the supply or resources may have been considerably less. However, at this museum there was also a bone flute that was attributed to them. If so, that means they made music. The caves also contained shells with holes pierced in them, strongly suggestive that the shells were made into necklaces.

Now the paintings. The way we know how old they are is interesting. The cave artists used inorganic pigments, by and large, although the black may have been carbon. However, the dating was done by a particularly crafty means. The paintings have a thin layer of calcite over them, deposited by groundwater seeping down over them. The water contains tiny levels of uranium, and when lodged in the calcite, it decays to thorium. (Thorium oxide is effectively insoluble in water, so it would not have been in the original water.) The uranium/thorium ratio allows us to date the calcite, and interestingly, although this layer is relatively thin, they have been able to shave it and find that the deeper calcite is indeed older.

So they drew, they made music, they adorned themselves. Not that much different from us.